First Unitarian Church of Providence
worship & spiritual practice
about sunday services


“Our Transylvanian Roots: Where Is Our Holy Church?"
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, January 31, 2016

There is no audio available for this sermon. Please read full text, below.

Francis Dávid was the clerical leader of Unitarianism in Transylvania, the birthplace of the name of that half of our religious tradition. Rather than abdicate his freedom of conscience, Dávid was imprisoned in 1579 where he died of pneumonia six months later. Historian Charles A. Howe made this reference to that event in his book For Faith and Freedom, published in 1997:
Dávid's confidence that he had been enlightened by God's spirit and that his views were true had given him the courage to press on, while at the same time blinding him to the probable consequences. Had he lived and been given the freedom, he doubtless would have continued much further with the doctrinal reformation that he had begun. As it was, he was confident to the end that his reformation would continue, for inscribed on the wall of his dungeon cell was found the following message:

Neither the sword of popes, nor the cross, nor the image of death — nothing will halt the march of truth. I wrote what I felt and that is what I preached with trusting spirit. I am convinced that after my destruction the teachings of false prophets will collapse.
Our modern reading is, The Task of the Religious Community. It was written by the much venerated, retired Unitarian Universalist minister, Mark Morrison-Reed:
The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all. There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others. Once felt, it inspires us to act for justice. It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.

“Our Transylvanian Roots: Where Is Our Holy Church?"

Religious experience, at its best, provides us opportunities to tell and retell stories, so that in the telling and in the reflection that follows, we might grow in our ability to find and make meaning in our lives. This morning we celebrate Partner Church Sunday. There are many here who don’t know, or understand, or fully appreciate the connections we have with our fellow Unitarian religionists in Transylvania, where the name Unitarian first appeared, in the 16th Century. The origin of Transylvanian Unitarianism and our own origin are the same. To a very significant extent, our odysseys, though by no means the same, have been inextricably linked from the beginning.

Unitarianism, in both countries, is and has been, since its inception, a fluid religion in which the ongoing evolution of creation is experienced within a context, which is forever now, forever in this moment. Not yesterday, not last year, not 2,000 years ago. To be meaningful in our tradition, our liberal religion must speak into the lives we are living, not someone else’s now or in any other time.

We continually define and redefine ourselves. What might be the most appropriate answer to the concerns of one moment in time may not be so pertinent in the very next. That’s one of the reasons why I love church work so much – it requires of me a constant adaptation and freshness in order to provide leadership for a community dedicated to meaningful religious life.

Our dedication to liberal religious values (freedom of conscience, religious tolerance and the use of reason) has been constant from the beginning. But the context in which we live out our dynamics is ever changing. That's why, for us to know who we are today, we need to know something about the road we have traveled to get here, and it’s important for us to know who are our kin. And so we tell and retell stories.

One of my favorite stories in Unitarian history is one that I often go back to when I’m trying to discern where we're coming from, and where we are, or might want to be, heading. The story is told by the preeminent Unitarian historian, Earl Morse Wilbur in his voluminous History of Unitarianism. Set in Transylvania in the 16th Century, the story identifies an integral quality of our ongoing Unitarian Universalist character as it was enacted in that very early chapter of our past.

The story actually begins prior to the onset of Unitarianism in Transylvania. It begins in mid-16th Century Poland where there was an enclave of Socinians, followers of Faustus Socinus, who were anti-Trinitarian. They were unitarian in theology but not in name. The Socinians, once a powerful and influential force on the religious and social landscapes of Poland, fell into disfavor following a succession yo the Polish throne. Their community, based in the city of Racow, was literally decimated. Many men were executed; women and children were sent into exile. A gifted Italian physician who was a staunch Socinian, Giorgio Biandrata, had been part of that Racovian enclave. When it was annihilated, he narrowly escaped with his life. Biandrata then wandered east into Transylvania where he was taken into the employment of Queen Isabella to serve as physician to the royal family. (No connection to Isabella of Spain)

During the 16th Century, Transylvania was a boarder state between the Ottomans and the Romans. National loyalties, depending on who wore the crown, swung back and forth between those two empires; the pressures for Transylvania's allegiance were great. Biandrata’s service was to Queen Isabella, who had been supported on her throne by the Ottoman Sultan. Her reign was that of caretaker until her son, John Sigismund would reach the legal age to rule.

Sigismund and Isabella had been greatly swayed by Biandrata’s anti-Trinitarian teachings. So had Francis Dávid, the leading preacher in the capitol city, Kolozvár. Together they created the foundations of the Unitarian Church for all of Transylvania. Some of the local princes who held more loyalty to Rome challenged this new religion. A Diet, which was a convention of sorts, was convened and a great debate took place. Representatives of the Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran churches participated, arguing against Dávid. But they were no match for this preeminent theological scholar. In a subsequent Edict of Toleration, John Sigismund declared all four faith traditions to be valid and to have equal protection under the crown.

Unfortunately, Sigismund died shortly after, at a very early age. He was replaced by a Catholic cousin, Stephen Báthory, whose loyalty was to the Roman Church. Stephen did everything within his power to rescind the Edict of Toleration. Failing that, he modified the edict to limit the theologies of the four accepted religions to what had been affirmed by them at the time of the edict. Nothing new could be added to the written or the spoken word.

This had little impact on the other three religions, but to the newly emerging Unitarian theology, it was perceived as a death threat. For Unitarianism to grow, so must its belief systems. As I said a moment ago, Unitarianism has been, since its inception, a fluid religion in which the ongoing evolution of creation is experienced within a context, which is forever now, forever in this moment. Stephen's decree sets the stage for the major point of this story.

Francis Dávid was the ultimate theologian of the Unitarian community. There were now Unitarian churches throughout Transylvania, Dávid was their recognized leader. He was determined that the new religion would not be encumbered by the interference of the king. Freedom of conscience was an ideal of the highest order, and his would not be compromised. Neither would his preaching.

Giorgio Biandrata’s commitment and devotion to Unitarianism was no less. But Biandrata had lived through those very dark days in Poland. He knew it was possible for this new religion to be completely wiped out because he'd seen it happen. He pleaded with Dávid to bide his time, to work with what they had, not to risk further intrusion from the throne by violating the new conditions of the edict. Biandrata felt that in time the situation would ease, and then, when it was safe, Unitarianism could move ahead into its fuller potential. He was afraid that Dávid would inadvertently cause the ruin of the fledgling religion that they had both worked so hard to produce.

When Dávid refused to yield, it was Biandrata himself who reported Dávid to King Stephen. Dávid was charged with heresy. He was put in prison where he died of pneumonia some months later.

Ever since that moment – at the very beginning of our religious tradition – there has continued to be a tension within Unitarianism that remains at the core of our Unitarian Universalist character to this day. That tension exists between the rights and the needs of the individual on one hand, and the common good of the institution on the other. Though the story that introduces these dynamics into our history is indeed a sad one, the dynamics themselves generate a very creative tension. The religious process, at its best, whether it is liberal or any other religious perspective, is always a “dance of balance” between the “one” and the “many”.

The spiritual quest is always an effort on the part of individuals to discover who they are in relationship with who and what is around them, with All-That-Is. Religion is the institutional, the community setting where we bring our individual spiritual quests in order to pursue those quests in cooperation with and in the company of kindred spirits.

When we welcomed new members back in November, as we will again next month, we said that, “We ask that you care, both for your fellow church members and for this institution that embodies the liberal religious principles that we enjoy.”

Individuals require room to grow. Institutions protect and nurture that space, but it is at a cost to the individual. Voluntary membership in any organization or institution requires a willing sacrifice of resources; a sacrifice that necessarily includes some of our freedoms. One person, however fervently they might believe, does not hang a banner of proclamation out on the front of the church. Congregations make such decisions. Hopefully, the sacrifice that is made is then redeemed by the synergy generated from the cooperative effort of the many in the promotion of the greater common good.

The outcome of this tension need not be death, as it was for Francis Dávid. Instead, it can be quite life-giving by providing a foundation for a creative community, one that is cooperative in promoting the whole group as well as the individual. Such interdependence is a very delicate dance, a very delicate balance. It is up to us as Unitarian Universalists to hold up both sides, to take up the part of both Dávid and Biandrata.

“Where is our holy church?” Let me place the dynamics of that delicate balance within a more contemporary context, as seen through comments made by A. Powell Davies and Mark Morrison Reed. Davies served other congregations as well, but was most known for his Mid-19th Century tenure at All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C. Morrison Reed is one of our very few African-American clergy, who is now Minister Emeritus of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Toronto.

Perhaps you can hear shades of Francis Dávid in Davies words as he said, “Let me tell you why I come to church. I come to church because I fall below my own standards and need to be constantly brought back to them . . . I must have my conscience sharpened [and] I must feel again the love I owe to others . . . not only hear about it but feel it.” In a sense he was saying, I come to church in order to reconnect – within the context of the sacred and the sacred community. I come to church in order to reconnect with myself, so that I might be capable of being the best me that I can become.

Several decades later Morrison Reed responds to that same inclination towards being made more whole by citing the purpose of the church as providing a means of gaining a sense of personal wholeness by connecting that personal, spiritual goal to the more global moral goal of promoting the common good. “The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all. There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others. Once felt, it inspires us to act [together] for justice.”

We come to our church to explore our heartfelt depths and our utmost aspirations. We come to take stock of our shortcomings, to seek forgiveness and learn to offer it. We come to find hope, to build faith, and to experience love. We come to seek communion with one another and with that which we find most holy. We come to find meaning in our lives so that when it comes time for us to die, we might take that ultimate step with confidence, having found a great deal of purpose and meaning in the living of our lives.

The word religion is from Latin roots meaning to bind, to hold together. Our experience here informs us that the purpose of religion and the task of the religious community is unveiled to us as those bonds that bind each to all. And what begins as exploration and experience leads to the expression of the love and compassion that we find and create within our community of seekers. And… “together our vision widens and our strength is renewed.”

As members of this community we accept certain responsibilities. Like Francis Dávid, we are each responsible for exercising our freedom of conscience; each accountable for tending to our personal spiritual health, each in authority for determining our own beliefs and for living into them and up to them.

Like Georgio Biandrata, we each share the onus of promoting and protecting the integrity of the whole community, for determining our shared aspirations, for being together in right relationship as we strive to fulfill those hopes. As it did for Biandrata, membership in this community comes with a commitment to participate in the creation, the support, and the nurturing of it, of this religious environment, this institution.

Where is our holy church? It is – in the dynamic flow of inner and outer religious life. It is in the balance between the one and the many. It is in each of us individually; it is in all of us together.

But of course it can’t stop there. If it did, it would go no further than the walls of this building. Just as we cannot come into a religious community and somehow remain in isolation, so too this congregation is part of a larger community. That community is ever expanding into yet larger communities, until ultimately we are part of a great expanding world with compounding and complex needs. So when we look to see where our holy church is, we can see it in a never-ending relationship with a world that needs for each of us – and for Unitarian Universalism – to be in it.

How can what we do here make us integral partners in establishing the well-being of the world? The Dalai Lama, alluding to the Tao te Ching, put it this way:
Responsibility . . . lies with each of us individually. Peace, for example, starts within each one of us. When we have inner peace, we can be at peace with those around us. When our community is in a state of peace, it can share that peace with neighboring communities, and so on. When we feel love and kindness towards others, it not only makes others feel loved and cared for, but it helps us also to develop inner happiness and peace. And there are ways in which we can consciously work to develop feelings of love and kindness.
It begins with each of us. Our church calls us to find and strengthen those ways of consciously working within ourselves. Our church calls us to find and strengthen those ways of consciously working with one another.

Where is our holy church? How do you care for this institution, with its rich traditions and promises of opportunities for transformation, this institution that you are a part of – that is a part of you? What freedoms are you willing to sacrifice for this community, this faithful vehicle for making a difference in your life, for making a difference in the world?

This morning as we acknowledge our Unitarian partners in Transylvania, we might all do well to ask, where is our holy church? And then we might answer that our church is wherever we take it, whether that be deep into our hearts, or moving outward, expanding the church to the furthest limits of our imaginations.

We might do well to remember our history, telling and retelling the stories so that we don’t have to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Telling and retelling our stories so that we might grow in our ability to find and make meaning in our lives.

Telling and retelling our stories so that we might carry their lessons forward, adjusting the dynamics, ever seeking the balance between the two – between the needs of the one and the needs of the many. This balance is our fluid dance of religious life. This balance can surely inform the dance that is this remarkable, remarkable gift which is our human life.